Are you a different person in German, French, or Mandarin? Do you simply feel differently while speaking different languages, based on the way you express yourself?
How does knowing more than one language affect the way you engage with the world? Believe it or not, scientists have studied this phenomenon and provided some interesting insights, which we’ll share below. We also asked a sample of language learners around the world to contribute their reflections on the topic of language and identity.
What does the research say?
In a new series of studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, researchers found that changes in self-perception did indeed accompany multilingualism, at least for a population of bilingual Hispanic women, but the effect was greatest for “bicultural” women (women who participated in both Latino and Anglo culture).
The authors of the study discovered that being bicultural as well as bilingual led to something called “frame-shifting,” which they defined as changes in self-perception or identity. The women who reported being bicultural experienced frame-shifting more quickly and more easily than the women who reported only being bilingual (monocultural bilinguals). “Language can be a cue that activates different culture-specific frames,” the authors write.
For example, these bicultural women considered themselves more assertive when they spoke Spanish versus English. They also saw others differently depending on which language was used. One of the studies involved showing women ads featuring other women in different scenarios. They viewed the ads first in one language (Spanish or English), and then six months later in the other language. After the second viewing, their perceptions had shifted. “One respondent, for example, saw an ad’s main character as a risk-taking, independent woman in the Spanish version of the ad, but as a hopeless, lonely, confused woman in the English version,” the researchers explained.
The Big Five personality test
In an older study, from 2006, Nairan Ramirez-Esparza, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut, gave Mexican-Americans two versions of the “Big Five” personality test: one in English and one in Spanish. The “Big Five” measures the following common human traits:
- Conscientiousness; and
What she found is that participants scored higher in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness when they took the test in English. Ramirez-Esparza and her colleagues relate this finding to the fact that more individualistic cultures (such as the U.S.) value these traits to begin with. When asked to describe their own personalities, in a follow-up study, participants focused on their relationships, hobbies, and families when writing in Spanish; in English, they focused on their individual achievements, schooling, and daily activities. “Language cannot be separated from the cultural values of that language,” Ramirez-Esparza told Quartz. “You see yourself through the cultural values of the language you are speaking.”
These studies raise an interesting question: do these “personality” changes reflect different feelings about oneself on some stable internal level, or do they only exist in the context of a social exchange?
“When someone says their personality changes,” writes Bonny Norton, a professor of language and literacy education at British Columbia University, “what they’re saying is: ‘When I talk to other people, my personality changes.”
Be that as it may, other researchers have found that internalized grammar does affect one’s perception and behavior, if not personality, regardless of whether one is engaged in communication exchange.
Language and identity mindset
At Lancaster University in the UK, psycholinguist Panos Athanasopoulos studied German and English bilinguals to see if speakers’ mindsets shifted when communicating in either language. They focused on how German and English speakers treat events.
“Here, we show that fluent German-English bilinguals categorize motion events according to the grammatical constraints of the language in which they operate,” he writes. This is because each language situates actions differently in time. As an example, consider the difference between these two sentences in English: “I was sailing to Bermuda and I saw Elvis” vs. “I sailed to Bermuda and I saw Elvis.” German, he explains, doesn’t have this difference, leading to differences in expression: “German speakers tend to specify the beginnings, middles, and ends of events, but English speakers often leave out the endpoints and focus in on the action.”
Perhaps because of this nuance, Athanasopoulos found that when speaking German, as opposed to English, his study participants preferred to match events on the basis of motion completion.
These may be subtle differences, but they also show it doesn’t take much to influence behavior.
Do you feel differently speaking different languages?
For the second part of this article, we asked bilinguals in different corners of the world to share their thoughts on how speaking multiple languages affects their identity, self-expression, mental focus, and other features of daily life. Here’s what they told us.
Languages: English, French, German
“For myself, for years, I let a quote from Vladimir Nabokov get the better of me, believing him when he writes, ‘German is a lifelong hobby and work-in-progress.’ Remember, he spoke three languages fluently as a child. I spoke French and English as a child. But learning German wasn’t easy due to my mindset coming into the language. At eleven, after a year in Germany, my parents divorced while my father was stationed in Germany for three years. Thus, it was a psychological matter for me to grasp control of the language. It was an obvious zone of vulnerability for me, which made me have to ask: do I want to stay in this zone or do I want to feel complete, whole, competent again?
With French, I feel a nostalgic switch to the lyrical and romantic and adventurist, while with German there exists this determination for structure, ‘angst consciousness/Aufmerksamkeit,’ and what I can reference as scholarly-substancing, possibly a result of me returning to university at fifty to attain one of my degrees in German Studies (Germanistik).”
Languages: English, Spanish
“Speaking another language makes me feel different because I feel invested in understanding another culture, and I also notice cognitive differences in myself since I became bilingual. I did not grow up in a bilingual household and learning Spanish, after English, as my second language has been a conscious long-term endeavor. Beyond the ability to simply communicate in Spanish (I speak, read, and write at an intermediate level), I feel I have access to another world that monolingual English speakers in the U.S. and beyond have a limited understanding of.
Secondly, cognitively, I now think and understand basic grammatical structures in two languages which has led me to be a sharper problem solver in daily life and generally be ablet to communicate in my first language more quickly and effectively. Overall, I feel sharper mentally and that I have more empathy than when I only spoke one language.”
Languages: Spanish, English, German
“On one side, there is a language which ties me to my roots, to the place I grew up in. Even with that same language, there’s different ways of speaking it which reflect different parts of my identity. Like the accent from central Mexico and the accent from north Mexico and the different slangs that might pop up in those places. And then speaking another language… I do feel close to California because of the way I listened to this language all my life, but it’s such an international language that it doesn’t really help me understand what it means to me.
I’m not sure if I use it for this or that or being able to read or communicate or whatever. It’s for sure a part of who I am because of coming from the border, and the two languages that were coming together at that border. With German, it’s difficult to listen to myself now in a third language because even my tone of voice seems to be odd to me. So sometimes I feel insecure about expressing myself because I don’t know how comfortable I feel with the person I portray and express out into the world. But sometimes it just works without even thinking, so all of these things just disappear, I guess.”
Languages: German, English, Spanish
“I feel different when I speak a foreign language. Although I have lived abroad and speak English fluently, I find it difficult to communicate my feelings. As a result, I feel restricted ‘being myself’ when I speak a language other than German. Obviously, this feeling is even stronger when communicating in Spanish, which I only partially speak and understand.”
The language we use can affect us in subtle ways, even in our native tongue.
When it comes to feeling different depending on the language we’re speaking, the research—both scientific studies and personal anecdotes—suggests that aspects of our personality do change, especially in terms of what we express about ourselves to others, how we interpret and describe people and events, and how we decide to move through the world.
While you may not come across a full-blown Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario, it’s clear that language places a filter on human expression, and serves as an important lens for experiencing and understanding culture.